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In the MRISC study, women with an inherited risk for breast cancer were screened by a 6-month clinical breast examination (CBE) and yearly MRI and mammography. We found that the MRISC screening scheme could facilitate early breast cancer diagnosis and that MRI was a more sensitive screening method than mammography, but less specific. In the current study we investigated the contribution of MRI in the early detection of breast cancer in relation to tumor characteristics. From November 1999 to October 2003, 1909 women were included and 50 breast cancers were detected, of which 45 were evaluable and included in the current study. We compared the characteristics of tumors detected by MRI-only with those of all other (non-palpable) screen-detected tumors. Further, we compared the sensitivity of mammography and MRI within subgroups according to different tumor characteristics. Twenty-two (49%) of the 45 breast cancers were detected by MRI and not visible at mammography, of which 20 (44%) were also not palpable (MRI-only detected tumors). MRI-only detected tumors were more often node-negative than other screen-detected cancers (94 vs. 59%; P = 0.02) and tended to be more often ≤1 cm (58 vs. 31%; P = 0.11). MRI was more sensitive than mammography for a wide spectrum of invasive tumor characteristics i.e., size, nodal status, histology, grade and ER status. Half of the breast cancers detected in this study were visible by MRI only and these tumors were smaller and significantly more often node-negative than other screen-detected tumors, suggesting that MRI makes an important contribution to the early detection of hereditary breast cancer.